Leader in army with troops

On 8 September 2009, Captain William Swenson was leading a column of American and Afghan troops in order to support a meeting of Afghan government ministers with local elders from the village they were visiting. The column came under heavy ambush from the Taliban and were eventually surrounded on three sides. As a firefight ensued, Captain Swenson insisted on going into the enemy fire to pull out his injured men. His column radioed ahead for a medical helicopter to airlift the injured from the battlefield.

Just by chance, one of the helicopter personnel had a GoPro camera operating as Captain Swenson dragged his sergeant, Kenneth Westbrook, who was badly bleeding from a shot to the chest, into the helicopter. As the sergeant sat back, Swenson leant down, kissed him on the head, gave him a smile, then turned back to the field of battle with his colleague, Corporal Dakota Meyer, to rescue four more of his missing men.

By the time Captain Swenson had returned to the battlefield, his men were dead, but, in spite of facing live fire once more, he and Corporal Meyer successfully brought their bodies back to be airlifted home. Captain Swenson and his colleague both received the highest military award, the congressional Medal of Honor, for risking their own lives to save that of their colleagues.

When I first heard Simon Sinek tell that anecdote at a TED talk, and explain that when he had asked other soldiers like Swenson who risk their lives for their comrades why they do it, to which they answered, ‘Because they would have done it for me,’ I have to admit, I cried.

It shattered all of my ignorant thinking that somehow the military had an outdated understanding of what it means to be a leader. Sinek asked himself if somehow the military attracted people who were quite simply heroes in their DNA? But his conclusion was no, it’s not that, it’s the environment that the military creates that engenders this level of trust for their fellow teammates.

I asked myself whether any of the leaders in the companies I’d previously worked for would have risked their lives for me, and perhaps most importantly whether I would have risked my life for them – the people I had been responsible for over my business leadership career.

How must it feel to know that your leader – or, in fact, everyone in your team – would put themselves in harm’s way to protect you?

What impact would that knowledge have on a business culture trying to survive and thrive in a dangerous and chaotic world?

Phil Akilade